Adolescents who stopped studying maths after the age of 16 exhibited greater disadvantage in terms of their cognitive development than their peers, a study suggests.
Researchers at the University of Oxford have found that teenagers who gave up maths after their GCSEs had a lower amount of a critical chemical for brain development.
The reduction was found in a key brain region that supports many important cognitive functions, including maths, memory, learning, reasoning and problem solving, according to the paper.
This amount of brain chemical successfully predicted changes in mathematical attainment score around 19 months later, according to the study of 133 British students aged 14-18.
But there were no differences in the chemical before the adolescents stopped studying maths.
In the UK, 16-year-olds can decide to stop their maths education, unlike many other countries.
Researchers at the Department of Experimental Psychology at Oxford examined whether this lack of maths education in students from a similar environment could impact brain development.
Students were asked whether they stopped studying maths if their age was above 16 or whether they planned to stop studying maths if younger than 16.
They then underwent a brain scan and cognitive assessment, which were followed up after 19 months to examine changes that might have occurred as a function of studying maths.
The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that not having any maths education after the age of 16 can be disadvantageous, compared with peers who continued studying maths, in terms of brain and cognitive development.
Roi Cohen Kadosh, professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Oxford, said: “Maths skills are associated with a range of benefits, including employment, socioeconomic status, and mental and physical health.
“Adolescence is an important period in life that is associated with important brain and cognitive changes.
“Sadly, the opportunity to stop studying maths at this age seems to lead to a gap between adolescents who stop their maths education compared to those who continue it.
“Our study provides a new level of biological understanding of the impact of education on the developing brain and the mutual effect between biology and education.
“It is not yet known how this disparity, or its long-term implications, can be prevented.
“Not every adolescent enjoys maths so we need to investigate possible alternatives, such as training in logic and reasoning that engage the same brain area as maths.”
Prof Cohen Kadosh added: “While we started this line of research before Covid-19, I also wonder how the reduced access to education in general, and maths in particular (or lack of it due to the pandemic) impacts the brain and cognitive development of children and adolescents.
“While we are still unaware of the long-term influence of this interruption, our study provides an important understanding of how a lack of a single component in education, maths, can impact brain and behaviour.”